Hassan Nasrallah - AFP - 07122011
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, center, at podium, in the southern suburbs of Beirut on Tuesday, December 6, 2011. Photo by AFP
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A rare public appearance on Tuesday by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had Lebanese pundits scrambling for an explanation.

Nasrallah has largely stayed in hiding since the Second Lebanon War of 2006, for fear of being targeted by Israel. But on Tuesday, he emerged to address a crowd of supporters in Beirut for the first time since 2008, when he came out of hiding to mark the conclusion of a prisoners-for-bodies exchange with Israel.

Hezbollah's Al-Manar television station, which broadcast the speech live, said the event showed Nasrallah will always remain close to his supporters, and that he is the one who will protect both them and the Lebanese "resistance."

But Hezbollah's domestic rivals, the bloc led by ousted Prime Minister Saad Hariri, interpreted his appearance as a sign of the pressure Nasrallah and his organization are under, due to the ongoing uprising in Syria and growing international pressure on Iran.

Since these two countries are Hezbollah's main backers, their troubles could undermine his position, making it necessary for him to bolster his popular support via a public appearance, his rivals said.

"Nasrallah spoke aggressively and tried to whip up the crowd because he needs them at peak readiness in light of the accumulating threats," argued Amin Wehbe, a member of parliament from Hariri's faction, in an interview with Lebanese channel MTV.

Nasrallah himself said his public appearance was "a message to anyone who believes they can threaten us." Nevertheless, he kept it brief, "for security reasons," delivering the bulk of his address via a giant TV screen, as usual.

Tuesday's speech was in honor of the Shi'ite holiday of Ashura, which commemorates the murder of the prophet Mohammed's grandson, Imam Hussein.

Though he as usual spoke of Israel as "the main threat," the speech was devoted mainly to internal Lebanese affairs, and particularly the government's recent decision to pay its share of the costs of the international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Saad's father. The tribunal has indicted four Hezbollah members for the murder, and is thus considered a threat to Hezbollah's standing. Hezbollah had opposed the continued funding.

He also challenged demands that Hezbollah disarm.

"Anyone who tries to take action against Hezbollah's arsenal of missiles is doing a very great service for Israel, and is attempting - under the guise of what is called 'dialogue' - to do what Israel has tried to do for 33 years without success," he said. "We will continue to hold our weapons, day after day; we are only increasing our strength and improving our military capabilities."

The strength of the Lebanese resistance will "astonish" its enemies "in any future conflict," he vowed. "Ever since 1982, we have taken the initiative and we have paid no attention to the criticism of the international community."

In an indirect reference to the turmoil in Syria, one of Hezbollah's main arms suppliers, he said, "If anyone is betting that our weapons are rusting, we say no: We're replacing our rusting weapons."

He reiterated his support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, adding, "We say the resistance will remain and continue to operate, and you won't succeed in breaking it."